Abuse or exploration?

Originally Published: May 18, 2012
Share this
Dear Alice,

I am an 18-year-old girl and it is my first year in college. I am also involved in my first physically intimate relationship. At the beginning of the relationship, I was having a lot of problems with feeling sexually aroused and being physical with my boyfriend. It made me cry almost every time. Then, I remembered some experiences involving adult sexual behavior (both physical and conversations over the phone) with my best friend in first and second grade. I had not thought of these experiences in years, and the memories, even now, make me feel sad, scared, and sometimes guilty.

I remember being afraid to see her and being very upset as a child about what we did. I don't remember much, only very small snippets of what happened here and there. I went into therapy at school, and I can be intimate now without crying, but these memories still bother me and I just want to know what to call it. Is this child-on-child sexual abuse, or just little kids exploring?

Dear Reader,

It is brave of you to seek out information about these experiences and try to uncover how they may be affecting your sexuality currently. Whether or not you would define these experiences as abuse, they are clearly having an impact on you and they are worth exploring. Kudos to you for seeking out support.

The issue of children exploring sexuality is one that can be uncomfortable and confusing to talk about for many people. Children do have a natural curiosity about their own bodies and about others’ bodies. They do not experience sexual desire the way adults do, but many (if not most) enjoy touching their own bodies and being touched by others. Even newborn babies enjoy touching their genitals in pleasurable ways and show evidence of experiencing physiological arousal (vaginal lubrication and erection, for example). All throughout childhood, masturbation and sexual exploration with others of the same or different gender is quite common. Behaviors may include playing “doctor,” curiosity about “where babies come from,” “show me yours and I’ll show you mine” games, telling sexual jokes, and role playing relationships.

The fact this is common and healthy does not mean of course that all children want to engage in sexual exploration with others or that all want to have the same type of experiences. It seems like in your situation, this may have not been something you wanted to do with your friend. Your question about whether or not it was abuse really depends on your definition. In legal terms, it probably would not be considered such without their being an age difference between you two. Others might argue that regardless of age, if your friend knew you were not interested but continued to engage with you in this way, then it was indeed abuse. Others would argue that if she didn’t know, the fact that you did not want to do these things with her is enough to call it abuse. Whether or not you call it abuse, it clearly has affected you and you are right to seek out help in working through it.

There may be related explanations for your intimacy woes. For example, many people look back on childhood exploration and feel shame, guilt, or regret. Children who are “caught” by adults who are shocked or upset by the discovery of child sexuality especially may experience some strong messages about these activities being dirty, wrong, and shameful. If these messages are delivered in a harsh or judgmental manner, it may have a long-term impact on a person’s sexuality.

Has your boyfriend been understanding about your tears? Does he respect your boundaries and provide support? It may be difficult for those who do not have past experiences of abuse or trauma to understand these reactions. Remember you have a right to move as slowly into sexual intimacy as feels right for you. Avoid putting pressure on yourself to go further than feels right in the moment. Moving forward is completely up to you.

Props to you for working through these feelings of sadness, fear, and guilt. With time and support you should experience more joy from your relationships than anything else.

Take care,

Alice